Category Archives: Chronic pain


Healthy tissues in 1-2-3

The simple fact is that our tissues need movement to be healthy. By tissues I am referring to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, fascia and skin. This does not need to be extreme movement but it must be regular and purposeful. Even without pathology, pain or an injury it is vital that the tissues are moved consistently throughout the day. It is likely that if you are recovering from a pain state, this movement will need to be ‘little and often’ to follow the principle of ‘motion is lotion’. I love this phrase. It was coined by the NOI Group guys and I use it frequently. At the moment I a considering some other phrases with similar meanings. If anyone has any suggestions please do comment below.

There are many types of movement from simple stretching to walking and more structured exercise such as yoga.  For convenience I talk to patients about the ‘themes’ of the treatment programme. In relation to movement there are three themes 1-2-3: specific exercises to re-train normal movement and control of movement, general exercise and the self-care strategies to be used throughout the day.

The specific exercises could include re-learning to walk normally, to re-establish normal control of the ankle or to concurrently develop confidence such as in bending forwards in cases of back pain. Normal control of movement is a fundamental part of recovery. When the information from the tissues to the brain is accurate, there is a clear view on what is happening, menaing that the next movement is efficient and so on.

General exercise is important for our health in body and mind. As well as reducing risk of a number of diseases, our brains benefit hugely from regular exercise. We release chemicals such as serotonin that make us feel good, endorphins that ease pain and BDNF that works like a miracle grow for brain cells. Gradually increasing exercise levels is a part of the treatment programme for all of these reasons.

Regularly punctuating static positions with movement nourishes the tissues and the brain’s representation of the body. The tissues will tighten and stiffen when they remain in one position for a long period of time, and more so when there is pathology or pain. Often there is already overactivity in the muscular system when we are in pain as part of the way the brain defends the body. This overactivity leads to muscle soreness that can be eased with consistent movement.

These three simple measure are behaviours. Behaviours are based on our belief system and therefore we need to understand why it is so important to move and re-establish normal control of movement as part of recovering from an injury or pain state. This includes tackling any issues around fear of movement and hypervigilance towards painful stimuli from the body. Our treatment programmes address these factors comprehensively, employing the biopsychosocial model of care and the latest neuroscience based knowledge of pain.

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Using neuroscience to understand and treat pain

I love neuroscience. It makes my job much easier despite being a hugely complex subject. Neuroscience research has cast light over some of the vast workings of our brains and helped to explain how we experience ourselves and the richness of life. An enormous topic, in this blog I am briefly going to outline the way in which I use contemporary neuroscience to understand pain and how we can use this knowledge to treat pain more effectively. This is not about the management of pain, it is the treatment of pain. Management of pain is old news.

Understanding pain is the first step towards changing the painful experience. Knowing how the brain and nervous system operate allows us to create therapies that target the biological mechanisms that underpin pain. Appreciation of the plastic ability of the nervous system from top to bottom–brain to periphery–provides us with the opportunity to ‘re-wire’, and therefore to alter the function of the system and make things feel better. Knowing the role of the other body systems when the brain is defending us, is equally important. The synergy of inputs from the immune system, endocrine system and autonomic nervous system provides the brain with infomration about our internal physiology that it must scrutinse and act upon in the most appropriate way. We call this action the brain’s ‘output’ which is the responses that it co-ordinates to promote health and survival.

Excellent data from contemporary research tells us that understanding pain increases the pain threshold (harder to trigger pain), reduces anxiety in relation to pain and enhances our ability to cope and deal with the pain. We know that movement can also improve after an education session. This is because the perceived threat is reduced by learning and understanding what is going on inside, and knowing what can be done. The vast majority of patients who come to the clinic do not know why their pain has persisted, what pain really is, how it is influenced and what they can do about it themselves. For me this is the start point. Explaining the neuroscience of pain. Facts that we know people can absorb, understand and apply to themselves in such a way that the brain changes and provides a different experience.

It is the brain that gives us our experience of ourselves and the world around us. This includes the sensory and emotional experience of pain. The brain receives information from the body via the peripheral nervous system that suggests there is a threat to the tissues (input). In response, the brain must decide whether this threat is genuine based upon what is happening at the time, the emotional state, past experience, the belief system, gender, genetics, health status, culture and other factors. In the case that the brain perceives a threat, the output will be pain. The Mature Organism Model developed by Louis Gifford describes this beautifully (see below).

Pain is a motivator. It grabs our attention in the area of the body that the brain feels is threatened based upon the danger signals it is receiving from the tissues via the spinal cord. The brain actually ascribes the location of the pain via the map of the body that exist in the sensory cortex. On feeling the pain, we take action. This is the reason for pain. It motivates us to move, seek help or rest. Pain is an incredible device that we have for survival and learning, necessary to navigate life and completely normal. The brain constructs the pain experience and associated symptoms in such a way that we have to take note and do something about it immediately.


Mastery (2): practice, practice and then….practice

Mastery is defined in the Oxford dictionary as:

  • comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity
  • control or superiority over someone or something

The concept of mastery is often applied to a musical instrument, golf, martial arts or a language. The word is rarely used in conjunction with the rehabilitation of an injury or a painful condition. It occurred to me that there are vast similarities between the principles and experience of training for a sport or a skill and the participation in a rehabilitation programme. The difference will be the end goals and the specific reason for the training. In the case of mastering a sport, it is about performance enhancement with greater skill and efficiency to achieve fewer shots or more accuracy for example. In rehabilitation the goal are pain relief, normal mobility, control of movement, restoration of strength, power and a return to daily activities (work, home, exercise).

Undoubtedly the body has incredible mechanisms that heal injured tissue. Unfortunately there are many people who despite the healing process do continue to suffer painful symptoms. We see many cases of enduring and problematic pain at the clinic and set about the problem with a contemporary approach. This involves a range of treatment techniques and strategies including active rehabilitation or training. This training requires instruction, understanding, dedication, awareness, consistency, intention and practice. Just like learning a golf shot or the piano.

Setting up the principles of training (I will refer to the rehabilitation now as training) creates the right context and mindset. This includes pain/condition specific education so that the programme makes sense, the aims of the exercises, when to do them, how often and how to progress or moderate the intensity. In laying out the way forwards, the concept of mastery is introduced. What is it that needs mastery?

When we are in pain we change the way that we move. The longer the condition has been existing, the more the body and brain will have adapted alongside your thoughts and beliefs about the problem. The meaning that you give to the pain can also change with time and this is important. If the ‘meaning’ of the problem is significant, negative in nature and threatening to you as an organism (evolution speaking), the brain is more likely to protect you. This protection includes pain and altered movement, therefore perpetuating the cycle. This subject is for another day, important though it is, but dealing with negative thought patterns and unhelpful beliefs is fundamental, and requires restructuring. Returning to altered movement, this needs to be re-trained to reduce the guarding and protection. Of course this is one aspect of a treatment programme, but it is a great example to use when thinking about how you are going to master normal movement.

Mastering normal movement as mastering a language takes instruction, practice and dedication as mentioned. Often along the road we meet challenges and resistance both physically and mentally. One of those challenges is the plateau when it appears that nothing is happening or changing. The performance still seems to be the same, the outcomes like before. It is during this time that there is change occurring but it has not yet clearly manifest. Understanding that the plateau is an important part of the process and using the time as a chance to learn and an opportunity to create change. The nervous system is very plastic and adaptable according to the stimuli that it receives. In rehabilitation, the repeated stimulus of the right movements, in the right setting and mind set create such an opportunity.

To be good at any skill we must fully engage and spend the time with ourselves practice for the sake of practicing. Applying similar principles to rehabilitation in re-training normal movement, thoughts about movement and exercise and the functional skills of your chosen activity, provides a framework and a well trodden philosophical pathway to success. You will have your chosen goals that you will seek to achieve and on reaching them you will have further targets to attain. This is the journey.


Dysmenorrhoea and Pain

Dysmenorrhoea and pain — You may wonder why I am writing about dysmenorrhoea. It is because in a number of cases that I see, there is co-existing dysmenorrhea and other functional pain syndromes. These include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraine, chronic low back pain, pelvic pain, bladder pain and fibromyalgia. Traditionally all of these problems are managed by different specialists with their particular end-organ in mind—e.g./ IBS = gastroenterologist; migraine = neurologist; fibromyalgia = rheumatologist. The science however, tells us that these seemingly unrelated conditions can be underpinned by a common factor, central sensitisation. This is not a blog about dysmenorrhoea per se, but considers the problem in the light of recent scientific findings and how it co-exists with other conditions.


Central sensitisation is a state of the central nervous system (CNS)—the spinal cord and the brain. This state develops when the CNS is bombarded with danger signals from the tissues and organs.  It means that when information from the body tissues, organs and systems reaches the spinal cord, it is modified before heading up to the brain. The brain scrutinises this information and responds appropriately by telling the body to respond. If there is sensitisation, these responses are protective and that includes pain. Pain is part of a protective mechanism along with changes in movement, activity in the endocrine system, the autonomic nervous system and the immune system. Pain itself is a motivator. It motivates action because it is unpleasant, and provides an opportunity to learn—e.g./ do not touch because it is hot. This is very useful with a new injury but less helpful when the injury has healed or there is no sign of persisting pathology.

Understanding that central sensitisation plays a part in these conditions creates an opportunity to target the underlying mechanisms. This can be with medication that acts upon the CNS and with contemporary non-medical approaches that focus upon the spinal cord and brain such as imagery, sensorimotor training, mindfulness and relaxation. In this way, dysmenorrhoea can be treated in a similar fashion to a chronic pain condition although traditionally it is not considered to be such a problem. The recent work by Vincent et al. (2011) observed activity in the brains of women with dysmenorrhoea and found it to be similar to women with chronic pain, highlighting the importance of early and appropriate management.

The aforementioned study joins an increasing amount of research looking at the commonality of functional pain syndromes. We must therefore, be vigilant when we are assessing pain states and consider that the presenting problem maybe just part of the bigger picture. Recognising that central processing of signals from the body is altered in a number of conditions that appear to be diverse allows us to offer better care and hence improve quality of life.

* If you are suffering with undiagnosed pain, you should consult with your GP or a health professional.